FALCON POINTS

XFL makes a good first impression, but history tells us that's the easy part for start-ups

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The XFL debuted to a surprising buzz over the weekend. The games were well attended (all around 17,000), the product was better than expected, and TV ratings were solid.

The Houston entry, the Roughnecks, were one of the most impressive teams over the weekend, led by quarterback P.J. Walker, whose escapability and playmaking gave local fans something to cheer about.

Disclaimer: The games are being broadcast live on our station, ESPN 97.5, with the incomparable John Granato on the call. So I hope the league succeeds, because that is good for business. Having said that…

First impressions

New leagues always do well opening week. Fans are curious and tune in. Sustaining it is always the issue. The first night of the original XFL drew a TV rating of over 10. The AAF had almost three million viewers in its debut and barely lasted a few more weeks. The new XFL topped that, but can it continue to keep fans interested?

I can't speak to the in-stadium experience, but plan to attend this week's game. However, the TV broadcast was terrific. Hearing the refs talk through the reviews and the transparency that came with it was fantastic. The coach interviews and playcalling were interesting too. There is always a chance the TV product is so good people do not go to the games.

The quality of play was pretty solid and clearly better than the AAF, although only one of the four games was close. That's to be expected with a startup, though.

The embracing of gambling is a good thing, although the announcers clearly have little knowledge in that regard and were just pandering to the audience. That, too, is to be expected.

The rules changes had surprisingly little impact on scores. The kickoff rule is interesting, as are the extra point options. But in general, teams stayed conservative and it was a lot closer to traditional football than some weird hybrid.

So what happens next?

Sustaining the crowds and TV ratings is a must. The league itself has solid coaching, which should make for more competitive games down the road. It also has Oliver Luck running things, which is a positive. Luck knows what he is doing.

But none of that matters if they can't keep people engaged. They have a smart model; they aren't trying to be the NFL, or hope the NFL subsidizes them like the AAF. They are trying to be a fun spring football league.

Can it work beyond Week 1? That remains to be seen, and it is easy to be skeptical. People have short attention spans, and March Madness is around the corner. Will people still be interested then?

A lot to learn

One of the criticisms is that most people don't know many of the players. That's fair. The league is hoping stars will emerge and people will get to know them then. P.J. Walker is clearly off to a good start in Houston. It's safe to say no one in Houston had heard of Nick Holley before Saturday. Players will need to emerge so fans will buy jerseys in addition to generic gear.

Judging from TV, there was a surprising number of fans in that gear at the game. Whether it was curiosity, the throw back to the Oilers with the name and logo, Bill O'Brien fatigue or the combination of all of the above, it went over well with a fan base that was engaged. They seemed to have fun. Our SportsMap coverage of the opener was well received.

Like them, as a football fan and a person who likes to wager, I enjoyed Week 1. But I'm also like a lot of people; will I stay interested in Weeks 4 and 5?

That is the XFL's multi-million dollar question. And we won't have an answer after one week.


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Watt shocked fans with a surprise Twitter announcement. Composite image by Jack Brame.

We're not sure when Houston will erect its own Mt. Rushmore for sports legends, but we're quite certain that J.J. Watt, who announced his retirement on Tuesday, December 27, and his chiseled countenance will one day jut from the rocky sculpture.

A no-brainer for the NFL Hall of Fame and arguably the greatest player to ever don a Houston Texans uniform (the other being the quiet great Andre Johnson), Watt broke the news on social media, where he posted heartwarming photos of he, wife Kealia, son Koa, and his family.

He stunned the football world — and fans — with this simple message and those family photos taken after his current team the Arizona Cardinals lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

Koa’s first ever NFL game. My last ever NFL home game. My heart is filled with nothing but love and gratitude. It’s been an absolute honor and a pleasure.

For many in Houston, it's still a bit surreal to see Justin James Watt — the NFL superstar drafted in the first round in 2011 by the Texans — in Arizona. (A pick that put this publication on the national map for all the wrong reasons with an embarrassing hot take).

After an understandable but still bittersweet release in February 2021, Watt made headlines by signing with the Cardinals, a move many applauded, given the Texans' downward trajectory.

Renowned for his relentless motor, Navy SEAL-type work ethic, team-first approach, and straight-up bulldozing and game wrecking, Watt quickly became a one-man nightmare for opposing coaches and players. Even Hollywood jumped on the WattWagon, with Arnold Schwarzenegger calling Watt a future action star and offering some motivation after a big playoff loss.

His Pick 6 play during the Texans' first-ever playoff game, where he batted down a pass from Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and rumbled in for a touchdown, not only served as a terrifying calling card for the rookie, but would later inspire one his many nicknames: "J.J. Swat."

He would soon become one of only three players in NFL history to win at least three AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Awards, in 2012, 2014, and 2015. In 2014, he made such a splash that he came in second overall for NFL MVP, a rare feat for even the best defensive players.

His stats are nothing short of Hall of Fame-ready. He leads the NFL in tackles for loss (172), quarterback hits (281), multi-sack games (26) and sack yards (713.5), while ranking second in sacks (101.0). In 2020, Watt, who led the NFL in sacks twice (2012 and 2015), became the fourth-fastest player in NFL history to total 100.0 sacks, doing so in just his 120th career game, per team stats.

As the NFL Network notes, Watt will retire as only of three players in NFL history to win Defensive Player of the Year three times. Add to that his five first-team All-Pro honors, five Pro Bowl trips, and his status as a two-time NFL sack leader (his 74.5 sacks over that span of time are the second-most since 1982.)

But for all his numbers, perhaps the most significant for No. 99 is $41.6 million: the amount he raised in 2017 for Hurricane Harvey relief — the largest crowd-sourced fundraiser in history. What started as a simple ask for help after the storm became a runaway, feel-good charitable moment across the country — a testament to Watt's superstar power and his ability to influence the public and raise awareness.

One part single-man football army, one part Captain America, Watt evolved into the epitome of the athlete doing it right — on the field and off (even his "Dream Big. Work Hard." Twitter bio is a simple lesson for young athletes everywhere), deftly navigating the intersection of sports and pop culture. Flashing his boyish grin and monstrous biceps, he was a natural fixture on local and national TV commercials, and a viral sensation with ominous warnings to opponents, like this scary "ya mess with me..." declaration in 2014.

Not since Earl Campbell has Houston seen an NFL player put his team and city on his broad shoulders. At six-foot-four and 280 pounds, Watt is a literal and figurative Houston giant, one who cemented all-time hero status with deeds over words, giving over taking, and always being gracious to those across the world who adored him.

The 33-year-old husband, father, and sports powerhouse may be calling it a career in Arizona, but he'll always be a Houstonian — and one of the greatest pro athletes to ever call the city home. Here's hoping if baby Koa Watt elects a career in pro football, he gets a call from Houston on draft night.

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